August 13th, 2021
STARRING: JENNIFER HUDSON, FOREST WHITAKER, MARLON WAYANS, MARC MARON
DIRECTED BY: LIESL TOMMY
AMovieGuy.com’s RATING: 2 ½ STARS (Out of 4)
The music biopic practically has its own season, where it creeps towards awards months, and we know we will get two or three a year. It doesn’t help that we’ve seen so many by this point, all of them fitting a similar narrative formula, which was perfectly lampooned in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, and biopics have never truly recovered from that. Aretha Franklin is the recent musician to get this treatment, and although it does fall victim to hitting those standard biopic beats, it helps to have a phenomenal actor that can carry a film dramatically and vocally in her performance. Jennifer Hudson perfectly embodies the queen of soul, not doing an impression of the singer, but taking her life and legacy into her body, and wonderfully omitting it from her voice. Respect powers through the music biopic trappings and mostly succeeds with a glorious sound.
It starts at the beginning in Birmingham, Alabama, where Aretha (played in her young age by Skye Dakota Turner) is one of four kids, enamored with her mother (Audra McDonald), looking up to her preacher father (Forest Whitaker) on the pulpit, and caught in the middle of their ugly separation. From the start, however, Aretha can sing, and whether it is in church or in the middle of the night to sing for one of her father’s late cocktail parties, Aretha can belt it out. The gift just comes naturally from Rea, as everyone calls her, but from her young age Aretha’s life was met with tragedy and trauma. Her mother dies, her father is abusive, and at the age of twelve, Aretha is raped and becomes pregnant with her first child. It’s the tragedies of Franklin’s life that don’t get enough attention which brings the rating for Respect down.
The direction by Liesl Tommy is a mixed bag, where I can see that she’s attempting to do things slightly different, with the story by Callie Khouri avoiding the standard wikipedia points, but the screenplay by Tracey Scott Wilson unable to make the dialogue not sound wooden. The wooden performances are not from Hudson or Whitaker, but from an oddly cast Marlon Wayans, dawning a fake mustache that is laughable from start to finish. It’s all of those negative parts that I end up ignoring because the performance by Hudson is too damn good. Her voice is legendary and she does everything she can to honor the greatness that Aretha Franklin was.
As far as the technical side, Respect does include fantastic costume design from Clint Ramos, which sparkles and glows in the 60’s & 70’s lights. The cinematography from Kramer Morgenthau attempts to avoid the plastic look that Bohemian Rhapsody had, pushing the camera in on Hudson’s face during her intimate thoughts, and pulling back to give us a glimpse of the atmosphere. There’s a similar look to recent films like Judas and the Black Messiah and One Night in Miami, both glossy pictures, but both holding onto the moments they depict.
By the end Respect is undoubtedly too long- runtime of 2:25 is just dumb- but it’s more than worthy of your attention for Jennifer Hudson. There may be that music biopic silliness and Respect fails to dig deeper into the darker events of Franklin’s life. This ultimately feels like a celebration of two legendary artists, where the queen of soul passes the torch to the great oscar winner in vocal supremacy. Can a movie get 2 ½ stars just for a lead performance? I guess it can. I Respect that.
RESPECT IS IN THEATERS THIS FRIDAY AUGUST 13TH
2 ½ STARS
Written by: Leo Brady